Undoubtedly, it has been business as usual when Gowda presented his maiden rail budget on Tuesday in the Lok Sabha. The format, with the usual reeling out of numbers, scores of passenger amenity schemes and new high-tech initiatives in the area of communication was there.
So was the ritual of the minister ending his speech with a mandatory long list of new trains, though mercifully limited to five Jan Sadharan, five premium, five passenger, 27 express trains, and not over hundreds which had been the norm for the last two decades.
It appears ‘Modi sarkar’ has yet to realize the gravity of the financial mess the railways finds itself in, what with the operating ratio touching 94% as was announced by the minister himself while presenting the budget. According to Gowda, the level of surplus available with railways has plunged from Rs 11,754 crore in 2007-08 to only `602 crore this year, leaving little room for planning anything big.
However, this did not stop Gowda from announcing a Ahmedabad-Mumbai ‘bullet train’ for which he has earmarked a token grant of Rs 100 for studies, consultancy etc.
Of the 676 projects in the pipeline, so far, only 356 have been completed for which Rs 50,000 crore every year for the next 10 years will be required. A slew of measures to garner funds for ongoing projects were announced including planning commission’s magic formula via PPP (public private partnership) which has so far been far from successful in both railways and road projects.
FDI, railway PSUs (six of them) to pitch in with their cash reserves and market borrowings have also been proposed, though how much successful each of the alternatives would be is anybody’s guess!
As a very rough estimate Indian railways spends about Rs 5 crore on running a train, be it passenger or freight while it earns about Rs 2.2 crore from a passenger and a whopping Rs 14 crore from a freight train.
This pattern of earnings is almost the same world over and given its vastly superior earning capacity, the hardnosed 14 Class I railroads of the US with over 2,00,000 km of rail network between them have understandably chosen to put all their eggs in the all important ‘freight’ basket.
However, the silver lining in yesterday’s budget has been Gowda allocating most of the capital budget funds in 2014-15 for capacity build-up or for strategic lines.
He has also refrained from announcing any new populist project on socially desirable grounds, as was the norm with some of his predecessors.
A major boost for parcel traffic has been provided by plans to set up new terminals from which special parcel express trains with newly-designed parcel vans would be run.
Incidentally, it would help de-congest platforms, and eliminate passengers’ ordeal of having to negotiate mountains of packages strewn all over, a common sight at Old and New Delhi stations!